The 49ers have long rooted their identity in their defensive line, taking great pride in their ability to construct a fearsome group of players on the front four who can get after opposing quarterbacks.
Their commitment to winning up front is evidenced by the hefty price tag the group as a whole will command this year based on their collective 2023 cap hits. Per Spotrac, the 49ers currently have $61,843,340 in 2023 cap hits invested into the defensive line group, which is the second-highest total in the league trailing only the Washington Commanders.
Led by sizable cap hits from Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, the 49ers defensive line is accounting for over 26.4 percent of the team's total salary cap in 2023. While it would be expected to have a sizable portion of the cap space allocated to a position group they have prioritized so emphatically, that is still a gargantuan figure when you isolate that number on its own.
So, how exactly were the 49ers able to spend so much financial capital on their defensive line while also maintaining a balanced defense that was elite at all three levels? Look no further than the secondary, which has returned an absurd rate of value relative to the cap hits that are currently assigned to the players populating it.
According to Spotrac, the 49ers secondary is currently scheduled to count just $20,504,319 against their 2023 cap space, the second-lowest figure in the entire league among all secondaries. The highest cap hit for any individual player within the 49ers secondary in 2023 is Charvarius Ward at $6,421,000. That’s not even a top ten cap hit on the 49ers roster for a player who is in their prime at an impact position.
What has really assisted the 49ers with this financial flexibility has been their ability to find impact players late in the draft who have made major contributions on extremely affordable rookie contracts.
Talanoa Hufanga was a First Team All-Pro selection last season, and he will account for just 0.42 percent of the 49ers total cap space in 2023. That number jumps to just 0.45 percent in 2024, the fourth and final year of his rookie deal.
Having a young starting caliber player who is only responsible for less than a half of a percent of your salary cap space is a luxury most teams could only dream of having. After the breakout performance by Deommodore Lenoir down the backstretch of the 2022 season, the 49ers now have half of their secondary checking those boxes.
Lenoir is on a very similar contractual trajectory as Hufanga over the next two seasons, checking in at 0.43 percent of the 2023 space, with that number jumping to just 0.45 percent in 2024.
The confidence that Lenoir instilled in the 49ers front office allowed them to make a gut checking decision in letting long-time starter Emmanuel Moseley walk in free agency. By not spending on Moseley, the 49ers now had the ability to allocate further resources in the pursuit of a marquis free agent in Javon Hargrave, who was arguably the top player at any position available in this year's free agent cycle.
The veteran signings they have made echo a similar value, with Tashaun Gipson returning on a one-year deal that will only account for 0.88 percent of the 49ers cap space after an impactful year that saw him start in all 20 games, including the postseason.
A very high upside signing of cornerback Isaiah Oliver comes with very minimal financial risk. Oliver is slated to account for 0.71 percent of the 2023 cap space, which could be an extreme bargain for a player general manager John Lynch noted the team has been high on since his college days at Colorado.
In total, the 13 players currently under contract in the 49ers secondary are only responsible for 8.63 percent of the total, 2023 cap space.
The balance in spending that heavily favors the trenches is reflective of the philosophy the 49ers brass has echoed throughout the entirety of this current regime. However, the success of this endeavor is still contingent on the symbiotic relationship that is dependent on a secondary constructed within the margins.
A secondary that has far exceeded expectations and as a result allowed the 49ers to comfortably swing for the fences by doubling down on an area of strength by sinking further financial capital into their defensive line.
The success of the 49ers secondary has often been attributed to a ferocious pass rush that would make life easy for anyone responsible for covering behind it. What’s been lost in translation along the way is the fact that the collection of talent creating that pass rush wouldn’t exist if not for the secondary that is currently operating on a third of the budget stepping up in a huge way.